No punches pulled in this reflection on Irish Catholicism and the Fifth Commandment

Violence, Politics and Catholicism in Ireland

by Oliver P. Rafferty SJ

(Four Courts Press, €45)

Felix M. Larkin

The Irish-American humorist, Finlay Peter Dunne, in 1901 opined through the voice of his fictional creation Mr Dooley, that the US Supreme Court “follows the election returns” and adjusts its interpretation of the law accordingly.

The central theme of this book, by the distinguished Irish Jesuit-historian Oliver Rafferty, is that for the last 200 years the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland has likewise followed public opinion and bent its “timeless and transcendental” moral stance against political violence so as “not to lose the affections and support of the people as a whole”.

In fairness, Rafferty recognises that “the Catholic Church struggled to wean the Catholic community away from its disposition to violence”. However, its endeavours to this end being generally unsuccessful, it “amended its views in order to maintain a role in public life”. Politics triumphed over principle. 

Timely message

This is a timely message, as we continue our celebration of the centenary of the 1916 Rising – for the Catholic Church’s participation in such celebrations highlights the moral ambiguity that Rafferty identifies. Even the late Cardinal Cathal Daly, whose record in condemning recent IRA violence was faultless, could write in the 1970s that “the violence of the ‘old IRA’ in the 1919-21 period was both just and necessary”. 

Most of the bishops in that earlier period would not have agreed, but this seems not to have troubled Cardinal Daly. He is quoted by Rafferty as asserting that “there is no historical continuity whatever between the present largely faceless leaders of the self-styled ‘republican movement’, and their honourable forebears”. This dubious view undoubtedly reflected – and still reflects – popular sentiment, but is hardly a robust moral position.

Rafferty’s book comprises 10 individual essays, the earliest dating from 1999. All but two have been previously published.

The introductory essay, on “Political violence and Irish Catholicism, 1798-1998”, is a masterful analysis of how the Church responded to the problem of the “disposition to violence” exhibited by its adherents in the period in question. Particular aspects of the Church’s response to this problem are then considered in essays on “Fenian terror and Catholicism in North America” and on “The Catholic Church and the nationalist community in Northern Ireland since 1960”. 

The theme of political violence is also to the fore in essays on Cardinal Cullen and on the Jesuit journal Studies.

Two other essays of special merit deal respectively with “Catholic chaplains to the British forces in the First World War” and with “The Catholic Church in Ireland and the Second World War”. 

While chronicling how the Catholic Church responded to the challenges of both wars, Rafferty focuses on why it should have felt the need to support soldiers and sailors who, as he writes, “will kill others in violation of the Fifth Commandment and the clear injunctions of Christ to turn the other cheek”. And why did individual priests volunteer as chaplains in these circumstances? The answer he gives is compelling: “It was so as to be the Church, to be Christ, to the men who at any moment could be called from this world to the next.”

In his essay on the Second World War, Rafferty depicts the then Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Joseph MacRory, in a most unfavourable light – so resentful of Unionist domination in Northern Ireland that he openly sympathised with Nazi Germany. Archbishop McQuaid is quoted as saying that MacRory “was probably alone in Ireland in the views he expressed”. 


MacRory had been embittered by partition and by the relentlessly hostile attitude of the Stormont government towards Catholics. 

This attitude was exemplified by the comment of the Minister for Home Affairs, William Lowry, in 1944 that an Orange hall in Portrush which had been used as a Mass centre for American Catholic troops during the Second World War would have to be fumigated. (Two days later he was forced into an apology to the Bishop of Derry.)

The final essay in this collection touches on the influence of memory, often memories of political violence – and, in Northern Ireland especially, memories of violence perpetrated by the Protestant and Catholic communities against one another. Our history is suffused with such memories, and a greater understanding of history does not necessarily lead to forgiveness or reconciliation. 

Rafferty writes that “there is no cheap forgiveness, but for the Christian there can be no other path”. That uncompromising conclusion is typical of this author. 

He does not pull his punches anywhere in this provocative book.